Monday, December 20, 2010

'Coin operated' - A review of 'Dear Knights and Dark Horses', by Thomas Roma

For many, the role of photography in building the great book of history is still to produce icons of our time, images that can sum up the essence of a moment - defining pictures. We need to see the events in the photographs, we need to receive them like a gift from the photographer. History often cannot afford ambiguity, lack of clarity, or worse lack of force in a photograph: hence strong subjects, strong moments, strong composition. Drama, intensity and a clear message are the usual requirements for the narration of real life, the same ones needed for a good popular fictional story, after all. Moviemakers often fear silence, as it might make them lose the attention of the viewers - they need to be entertained, after all.

The war in Iraq is of course one of the major photographic dramas of the last decade, and we’ve seen it covered in all fashions: soldiers shooting, women in desperation, children crying, towers of smoke, humvees cruising the desert.

What remains unclear in all this is the role of the viewer: are we meant to be entertained, informed, shocked? Are we considered as just passive receivers of pre-packaged content or is there some space to feel something through those photographs, to imagine what goes beyond (or lies behind) the things we are shown?

Dear Knights and Dark Horses, the latest book by Thomas Roma, attempts to address that question in a somehow radical way: the photographs are divided in two sections, the first showing a sequence of old coin-operated horse rides in the streets of New York, while the second presents a series of portraits of US Army Reserve soldiers about to be deployed to Iraq. Rather than raising awareness through showing strong content, Roma asks the viewer to fill the empty space between these two worlds, the old-fashioned and now neglected kids’ entertainment and his subdued portraits of militaries, stripped of both any heroic appearance or dramatic setting.

Even if the association of these two opposite worlds leaves space for a rather obvious metaphoric effect, Roma still manages to create an interesting visual experience, with a photographic language reduced to the essential, a sober black and white supported by a very simple framing. The coin horses are almost merely recorded, collected from the streets into images who seem as casual as the occasional distracted glances these forgotten toys now get from passers-by; the soldiers photographs look like placid snapshots, straight portraits of men whose eyes are so difficult to penetrate, almost expressionless and yet full of the weight of a choice we might never fully understand.

The book itself appears like a small delicate object, almost square, with a gentle hardcover and a pretty simple graphic design: reminding the style of children books in its appearance, Dear Knights and Dark Horses calls for the viewer’s imagination and sensibility to re-imagine events we have been hearing over and over, inviting us to listen to a melancholic fairy tale in black and white to rediscover the story of a war we always see so full of colours and sounds that we might have become blind and deaf to it.

Dear Knights and Dark Horses. Photographs by Thomas Roma. Introduction by Alec Wilkinson. powerHouse Books, New York, 2010. 100 pp., 35 duotone illustrations, 6¾x7¾".

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